They don't mince words in Texas politics. A couple of months ago, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn announced that she had totted up the various fees and expenses imposed by the legislature as it struggled to close a $10 billion budget gap without raising taxes. They amounted, she said, to $2.7 billion. Maybe that wasn't a tax increase, Strayhorn argued--but it would certainly feel like one to millions of voters.
House Speaker Tom Craddick took exception. "Comptroller Strayhorn's comments," he said, "continue a pattern of misguided messages that seem intended more to stir up trouble than to increase public confidence in state government."
Governor Rick Perry wasn't too pleased, either. "Mrs. Strayhorn didn't raise any of these concerns during the session and did not offer any real alternatives," he declared. And Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst remarked, "Sounds like the primary started early this year."
Could be. Texas politicians have a national reputation these days for gloves-off political sparring, so it may be no surprise that the state's leading officeholders are taking a bead on one another. What makes it interesting is that they're all members of the same party.
Since the Republican takeover of the state legislature following last year's elections, the GOP leadership and the Democratic minority have been in almost a constant state of war. But there is tension within Republican ranks as well, and Strayhorn is at the center of it. With polls showing scant enthusiasm around the state for either Perry or Dewhurst, she may sense opportunity.
Texans have a recent history of voting for straight-talking, strong- willed women--such as former Democratic Governor Ann Richards and current Republican U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison--and Strayhorn, who is 63, is cast from the same mold. She became the state's first female comptroller in 1998, and ran ahead of the rest of the GOP ticket in her reelection contest last year.
Her campaign slogan, "One Tough Grandma," was in part a reference to her reputation as a budgetary watchdog, and in part to her personal life: While raising four sons as a single, divorced mother, she became involved in Austin politics and eventually served six years as mayor (her name at the time was Carole Rylander). Two of her sons have gone on to national prominence--Scott McClellan is the White House press spokesman; his older brother, Mark, is commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
Since the beginning of this year, Strayhorn has tangled repeatedly with her fellow Republican officeholders. She began the year by doubling her estimate of the state's budget shortfall, putting Perry, Craddick and Dewhurst--who serves as Senate president--on notice that they had a tough year ahead. During the legislative session, she objected loudly to Dewhurst's move to use the state's rainy day fund to close the budget gap.
Then, when the session was over, she declared that the budget passed by legislators would spend more than it took in, and she couldn't certify it. Perry, Dewhurst and Craddick threatened to take her to court, and the governor cut funds appropriated for her use. A day later, Strayhorn agreed to the budget.
With her reckoning of the new fees, however--they raise the cost of everything from car-title transfers to running a dry-cleaning business--Strayhorn signaled that she remains unbowed. "I don't want anybody being surprised," she said, "when their out-of-pocket costs for health care increase, and when everyone from nurses to plumbers to electricians pays higher professional fees, and when granddad has to pay more to go to the lake and go fishing."
In the words of Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, "the governor purported to close the gap without raising taxes. She's saying he didn't do as well as he'd like us to believe. There's a little bit of dusting yourself off and getting back in the game."